Stray cat on rug in Istanbul

Photo: Harold Schottner/Shutterstock

Istanbul is famous for its ancient history, jaw-dropping architecture and fantastic food, but many travelers would agree that one of the most memorable aspects of visiting this vast, beautiful city are the encounters with the local street cats.

These feral furballs number in the hundreds of thousands, and they're beloved and respected by almost everyone. Because of this, they're generally given free reign of the city — snoozing atop cars, shamelessly stalking fishermen and sometimes just wandering into business establishments and classrooms out of curiosity.

The revered status of cats in this corner of the world can be summed up in the popular saying, "If you’ve killed a cat, you need to build a mosque to be forgiven by God."

This decidedly pro-cat attitude can be traced back to an Islamic legend in which the prophet Muhammad was saved from a poisonous snake by a courageous feline. The impact of this one cat's heroic deeds can be felt in the city to this day.

Stray cats on roof in Istanbul

Photo: Marco Zanferrari/Flickr

Although the phrase "stray animal" brings up images of furry malnourished waifs, most of Istanbul's feral cats tend to be relatively healthy thanks to the thoughtful network of humans who provide food and much-appreciated ear scratches.

Over the years, Turkey has introduced several laws that address the need for more comprehensive animal welfare services, but there's still long way to go. While the resulting policies encourage the implementation of trap-neuter-release programs and shelter services, it's unfortunately not as well-funded as it could be.

As a result, the care and management of these animals often falls on the shoulders of volunteer organizations and well-meaning citizens. For example, when a neighborhood cat becomes sick or injured, it's not unusual for the people who regularly feed it to step in and pay for veterinary services. These cats may not be house pets, but they still have plenty of humans who love them.

Grooming cat in Istanbul

Photo: Kai Zau/500px

With such captivating characters wandering the streets of Istanbul, it's only natural that they would become the stars of their own documentary film! The film, "Nine Lives: Cats in Istanbul," paints a portrait of this ancient city as seen through "the eyes of the most mysterious and beloved animal humans have ever known, the cat."

The documentary is due to be released in 2015, but you can catch a glimpse of the project in this short trailer:

Continue below to see more of Istanbul's charismatic cats!

Cat against coastal sunset

Photo: Salih IGDE/Flickr

Tiny kitten at restaurant in Istanbul

Photo: LASZLO ILYES/Flickr

Cats on steps in Istanbul

Photo: Alexandra Lande/Shutterstock

Kitten snoozing on Turkish newspaper

Photo: Juan G. Aunion/Shutterstock

Kittens and mother cat in Istanbul

Photo: Florencia Lewis/Flickr

Fluffy orange cat in Istanbul

Photo: Giuseppe Milo/Flickr

Cat sleeping in basket

Photo: np&djjewell/Flickr

Stray cats in the street

Photo: stephane martin/Flickr

Calico cat climbing fence

Photo: IMACI/Shutterstock

Cat sleeping

Photo: NENG TIEO/Shutterstock

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Catie Leary is a photo editor at Mother Nature Network. Follow her on Twitter and Google+.

Catie Leary ( @catieleary ) writes about science, travel, animals and the arts.